By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
As for the Latin Americans, probably the jewel in the center's crown has been the frequent presence of Luisa Valenzuela, one of Argentina's most important writers and a contemporary avatar of the magical realism invented by Márquez. How did Axelrod snare Argentina's most famous female writer? Well, that's another Axelrodian anecdote: his wife (who is Argentinean herself) happened to sit next to Valenzuela on a plane one day and struck up a conversation. When Axelrod heard about it later, he knew he wasn't going to let that coincidence pass any more than he did the coincidence of sharing John Fowles' birthday. So he used that chance meeting as a wedge to invite her to come out for a reading, whereupon he and Valenzuela forged a friendship that's now well into its second decade. Now, Axelrod says, "she's my biggest fan," supporting the lecture series and consistently blurbing his fiction.
It's the Latin Americans whom Axelrod is highlighting in this year's lecture series, as well as in a bracing art exhibition, to be held in Chapman's brand-new Leatherby Library, of Argentinean and Chilean artists that will run concurrently with the lectures. (The exhibit also begins Feb. 12.) The painters—Alejandro Boim, Carlos Martin Musiera, and Camilo Ambrosio Utard—share not just bold coloration but a sort of surreal and violent pictorialism that comes from, among other things, their shared interest in exposing the torture and oppression practiced by the political regimes of Argentina and Uruguay. Ambrosio Utard's work includes a painting of the bloodied back of a nude and shackled prisoner kneeling after a beating. The flesh of the man's back glows a strangely beautiful orange and yellow (as in Van Gogh), which highlights the pain of the flayed skin at the same time that it suggests a transcendence of pain (perhaps through prayer)—yet the painting puts the viewer in the position of the torturer looking at the work he'd just finished. Among Musiera's paintings in the exhibition is the almost surreally cruel image—Bosch-like in its idiosyncratic creepiness—of another naked back, this one perhaps of a woman, who has had her torso run through with what appears to be a huge wire coat hanger. There are rambunctious, pop-inflected works in the exhibition, too (one by Boim features Batman with the mask of the Joker in the crook of his arm), and portraits by Ambrosio Utard that have a Picasso-like flamboyance. There's a reckless anything-goes quality to these artists—in terms of color, composition, cultural borrowing, political commentary, narrative thematics—that's quintessentially Latin American: unafraid of the garish, willing to mix traditions, exuberantly alive even when dealing with horror.
These are qualities that the writers whom Axelrod has brought together in this year's series also share. Carmen Boullosa, one of Mexico's foremost poets and novelists, initiates the series Feb. 12. In a long career that has only recently begun to flower in America (she has had two of her novels translated into English in the past decade, and she now teaches frequently at universities in the U.S.), Boullosa (like Valenzuela, like Chile's Isabel Allende) is the beneficiary of a kind of perfect storm of historical circumstance. Writing in the wake of Latin American giants Borges and Márquez, and the enormous fictional vistas they opened up (not to mention the international audience they created), Boullosa has been able to expand on their techniques, at the same time bringing feminist concerns to the table and taking advantage of the enormous relaxation of erotic restrictions that hampered previous generations of female Latin American novelists. Her themes—succinctly summed up in a BOMB magazine interview as "love, erotics, the body and the pleasures that can be experienced through the senses" should make for a provocative lecture.
The other writers to follow in the series—a group of Argentinean and Uruguayan writers, all but one female, and a number of them victims of torture by oppressive regimes—are likely to be just as provocative, especially to OC readers, used as they are to meeting American writers at Borders over polite cups of chamomile. Readers may have "overlooked the political nature of" Axelrod's own work (impossible to do, really, if you read Capital Castles, the middle book of his trilogy), but nobody will miss the politics of this lecture series.
Mark Axelrod went to high school with David Letterman. (Let's just say it: Axelrod is the Kevin Bacon of Orange County.) Letterman called him "Ax" back then, and though the comedian remembers him enough to send him tickets to his show when Axelrod's in New York, their common roots in Indianapolis have been pretty much axed, and they've been flung to opposite coasts (and, well, fates). It's always fascinating how people end up in Southern California. ("Tip the world on its side and everything loose falls into California." Can't locate the source of the quote, but it's true.) After kicking around loose for years, Axelrod fell into a tenured professorship at Chapman, which for years was a sleepy and overlooked private college whose financial health was grave before James Doti, the current president and absolute money magnet, initiated a $200 million endowment campaign that's resulted in a new law school, a new and amazingly outfitted film school, an attractive high-tech library, state of the art new sports facilities, and a gorgeous facelift to the entire campus. Chapman's college rankings are shooting up, and Axelrod's benefiting from the more talented student pool, the greater prestige, the greater access to funding for his many projects. Among those projects is his plan to jumpstart a dormant critical journal (called the New Novel Review) that would investigate the work of the practitioners of the experimental novel he's been championing all these years, as well as getting back on track Chapman's Distinguished Writers series that's been languishing due to lack of funding. The series has attracted luminaries like Allen Ginsberg and Joseph Heller in the past, and if he can get the funding—and Axelrod's fingers have found themselves in a lot of pots—he plans to have Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, or V.S. Naipaul come to OC next year.